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Saturday, March 19, 2011

MAKING 'THE GREAT HOUDINIS'

Unused promo art for The Great Houdinis (from the collection of MSW)

Anyone who has spent any time reading this blog knows I have a bit of a thing for the 1976 ABC TV movie, The Great Houdinis. Maybe that’s because it aired during the first year of my burgeoning interest in Houdini. Maybe it’s because it’s damn good! One thing that has always puzzled me is where exactly this film was shot. Even actress Adrienne Barbeau was unable to recall which studio was used. Houdini expert Patrick Culliton was able to provide some information, but the filming of this movie has always been a mystery… until now.

The Great Houdinis, ABC Production #7602, shot for 20 days between April 28 and May 25, 1976. The film utilized five major locations, with the final location set for a major scene that was either cut or never filmed (we’ll get to that). The film was directed by writer/producer Melville Shavelson. His production manager was Don Goldman. Assistant directors were F. A. Miller and Penny L. Vaughn. The executive at ABC who oversaw the production was Marty Katz.

The title was The Great Houdini! (singular) up until at least the April 13th draft of the script. By the final revision on May 17, it had become The Great Houdinis (plural). The change might have been a reflection of how writer-director Shavelson viewed his story. "It's as much a love story as it is a story about a magician," he would say. (Update: According to Patrick Culliton, the title was changed when Sally Struthers was signed to play Bess as part of her deal.)

Two scripts show change in title (click to enlarge).

One thing not generally known is that The Great Houdinis was in a race with a rival Houdini movie at NBC called The Heart Is Quicker Than The Eye. That film was written by Jean Holloway and was being produced by Playboy Productions. The NBC project got the jump by announcing a start date of March 15, 1976. Both films were intending to air on or near Halloween to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Houdini's death. Possibly a buy-out agreement was reached between the two networks as Heart never materialized and Playboy Productions is mysteriously listed among The Great Houdinis producer credits on the novelization.

On April 28, 1976, the cameras rolled on The Great Houdinis at its first location:

Wilshire Ebell Theater, 4401 W. 8th Street, Los Angeles, CA (April 28 to April 30, 1976)

The first three days of filming were done at the Wilshire Ebell Theater, a historic 1,270 seat theater dating back to 1927. Long a popular filming location, the Ebell would double for the Alhambra, the Hippodrome and Hammerstein's Victoria, as well as unnamed theaters in San Francisco, Paris and Detroit.

The first day of shooting involved all the complex stage escape apparatuses. The first scene shot was The Milk Can Escape. Then the Water Torture Cell action was shot, with star Paul Michael Glaser failing to escape as a horrified Sally Struthers (Bess) looks on. Abb Dickson provided the cell, which would be touted in some media as “the original cell,” which of course is not correct.

Harry Blackstone Jr. helps prepare Paul Michael Glaser for
the Milk Can escape (Photo by Patrick Culliton, Genii)

The first day wrapped by filming another escape which only appeared in the opening credits -- Houdini's escape from a casket after Bess passes him a key -- or "feke" as the script calls it -- in a kiss. This was arbitrarily noted as taking place in the Hippodrome in 1920. Houdini expert Patrick Culliton was also on set that day playing Houdini’s assistant Franz Kukol. Artist Dave Stevens, famous for The Rocketeer, accompanied Culliton and spent the day taking behind the scenes photos (some of which can be viewed on Patrick's website, Houdini's Ghost).

One hundred and fifty extras were brought in on Day 2 to act as audience members. All audience reactions to the various stage escapes and spirit exposes were shot on this day. Glaser and Struthers then filmed the scene in which Harry helps Bess with her French during Metamorphosis, which is described as taking place in a “French Theater” in 1900. Harry Blackstone, Jr., who received credit as technical advisor on the film, appeared in the scene as a police officer. Newsreel footage was then shot projected against a backdrop screen on the stage.

All the backstage scenes were shot in the third and final day at the Ebell, starting with Harry coming to see his brother, Theo Hardeen (Jack Carter), at what is supposed to be Hammerstein's. This was also Adrienne Barbeau’s first day of shooting. Filmed was Daisy and Bess's conversation backstage in 1926 ("I tried. Not a damn thing."), along with the moment that Bess bumps into the hanging witch and says, "Sorry, Mama."

Queen of Angels Hospital, 2301 Bellevue Ave., Los Angeles, CA (May 3, 1976)

After a few days off, the production moved for a single day to Queen of Angels Hospital near downtown Los Angeles. Here one of the movie's best dramatic scenes was shot -- when Bess comes to see Harry after his nervous breakdown and pulls him from his funk by suggesting they make spiritualist exposes "part of the act." This was also the first day of shooting for the legendary Vivian Vance, playing Minnie the nursemaid. Vance, of course, is best known for her role as Ethel on I Love Lucy.

The Queen of Angels Hospital closed this location in 1989. After remaining vacant for many years, it became The Dream Center, a Pentecostal Christian Church mission, in 1996.

Queen of Angels, now The Dream Center, today

Home of Peace Memorial Park & Mausoleum, 4334 Whittier, Los Angeles, CA (May 4 to May 5, 1976)

Home of Peace Memorial Park
doubles for Machpelach
The fifth and sixth days of shooting found The Great Houdinis crew at the Home of Peace Memorial Park & Mausoleum, Los Angeles' oldest Jewish Cemetery. The first scene shot had Bess and Harry copying information from headstones for a spiritualist act, and then making love among the graves. This is described as taking place in a “small cemetery” in the 1890s. This was going to be a flashback at the start of the film, and would have been Glaser’s first appearance as Houdini. It's a terrific two-page scene that appears in both the script and novelization, however, the scene doesn’t appear in the final film. Instead, a beat where Bess hears Harry's disembodied voice signing "Roseabell" was inserted. Also shot on day one was Harry lingering at his mother’s grave with Bess unable to reach him.

Where is this bust today?
On the second day Home of Peace was dressed as Machpelach Cemetery in Queens, with a replica of the famous Houdini exedra erected in a quite corner. Here was shot the scene in which Bess meets the Reverend Arthur Ford (Bill Bixby), and her catty encounter with Daisy White that opens the movie. A "bust" is listed among the props at this location. Where is that bust today, I wonder?

One thing to watch for in this scene -- even though Bess/Struthers kneels and plants flowers in front of the exedra, as she enters the plot one can spot an fairly accurate reproduction of Houdini's actual tombstone sitting approximately where it does in the real cemetery plot.

20th Century Fox Studios, 10201 West Pico Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA (May 6 to May 21, 1976)

The 20th Century Fox lot with The Great Houdinis shooting locations marked in red

On May 6, production moved into the historic 20th Century Fox Studios in Century City. Here the bulk of the filming would take place over the course of the next two weeks. The production would utilize Stage 5, Stage 20 and Stage 4, as well as shooting on the studio's two remaining exterior sets (Fox sold their large backlot in 1961).

On the Hello Dolly street
Shooting commenced on May 6 on the still standing Hello Dolly street set. Here, the scene where Harry and Bessie are "riding in style" in a horse-drawn buggy was filmed, as was Houdini stopping to admire Queen Victoria’s dress in a store window. At the same time, on the adjacent "Brownstone Street," the exteriors of 278 were shot, including the spooky Halloween night scenes that involved creating wind and rain effects. Also filmed was Reverend Ford’s arrival by taxi near the end of the film.

Only a small section of the Hello Dolly street (seen here in 1976) remains on the Fox Lot today. But the Brownstone Street (aka "New York Street") still looks very much as it did in the film.

Brownstone Street as seen in the film and today

Soundstage 20 was also put into action on the first day of lot shooting. Here, the scene in which Bess gets trapped in the sub truck and Harry has to chop her free was shot. Over the following days, stage 20 would also house a train car set where Harry tells Bess what it means to be a magician, and she tells him she’s pregnant (shot on May 7). Stage 20 was also home to the Scotland Yard sets (jail cell and Melville’s outer offices). The Scotland Yard scenes would all be shot on May 12.

278 was housed on Stage 4
Soundstage 4 was used solely for the interiors of Houdini’s New York home. Here all the scenes with the older Bess and the Arthur Ford séance were filmed (on May 20), as was the famous Houdini-Daisy seduction scene (on May 19). In her 2007 autobiography, There Are Worse Things I Could Do, actress Adrienne Barbeau says a slightly more racy “semi-nude” version of this scene was to be filmed for a European cut. If that happened, it wasn’t included, as the international version (available on VHS) is identical to what aired in the USA.

The 28,274 sq. ft. Soundstage 5 was used for a wide variety of single scene locations. It was here on May 7 that Houdini exposes Margery the Medium (Barbara Rhoades). The stage also housed the Congressional hearing room where Bess, under oath, confesses that she still loves Harry (May 10). The legendary Nina Foch appears in this scene as the Rev. Le Veyne. Stage 5 was also the site of the Budapest Hotel, where Harry throws a “Royal” reception for Mama, and Bess rebelliously sings “Onward Christian Soldiers,” shot on May 14.

Cushing fresh off the set of Star Wars
May 11 was a special day on Stage 5, when legendary actor Peter Cushing arrived for two days of filming his scenes as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Interestingly, Cushing had just come from the set of Star Wars in England – The Great Houdinis was his first post-Star Wars work. (Star Wars would have as much impact on my life as Houdini – strange to think of all these converging forces at play in 1976.) Cushing started on the London Pub set, where Houdini impresses him and Superintendent Melville (Wilfrid Hyde-White) with a handcuff escape. The following day, May 12, he would film the Atlantic City séance on Stage 5 before moving over to Stage 20 for the Scotland Yard jail escape action.

The Weiss home was on Stage 5
Stage 5 would then be outfitted with all the interiors of the Weiss family home, including Harry’s bedroom (where Mama “meets” Bess), the kitchen (aftermath of meeting and Harry does the Needles), and the living room (New Years Eve wedding party). These scenes would be shot over three days on May 14, 17, 18. Among the principle characters listed on the schedule for the wedding party are Nathan, Leo, and Nathan's bride "Dorothy" (Marilyn Brodnick), who would actually be the infamous Sadie Weiss. Theo is also in the scene -- the script identifies him as the man who quips "Open Sesame" when Harry kicks open the bedroom door -- but here he's played by someone other than Jack Carter.

Shooting on the Fox lot wrapped on May 21 with, appropriately enough, the fatal dressing room punch, shot on Stage 20.

Malibu Pier, 23000 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu, CA (May 24, 1976)

After two days rest, The Great Houdinis production was again on location, this time at the Malibu Pier off Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu. Originally built in 1905, the pier was expended in 1938 and was made a historic landmark in 1985. The script has this down as being the Peekskill Bridge in New York in 1895, even though in the film a cop calls Houdini "that New York jerk." Here, Houdini’s failed underwater handcuff escape action was shot. A double was used for Glaser’s dive – the only time a double is mentioned on the schedule. Another desirable prop used on this day is the banner that is hung between the two fishing houses at the end of the pier. Nice to see the production designer used authentic Houdini letting from his early European tour posters.

Malibu Pier in The Great Houdinis (top). The pier doesn't
look any different today (bottom)

Belmont Amusement Park, 3000 Mission Park, San Diego, CA (May 25, 1976)

The final day of principle photography for The Great Houdinis was planned for the Belmont Amusement Park in San Diego, which was to double for Coney Island. Here a scene in which Harry proposes to Bess aboard a roller coaster would be filmed.

While it appears in the script, this scene didn’t make it into the final film. Was this scene cut, or never shot? This is something I haven’t yet to be able to discover, but it seems unlikely that a TV movie would cut a scene that took this much effort and expense to film. It’s my guess the scene and location were scrapped, and the last day was used instead to complete a schedule that may have run over (update).

Belmont Park was scheduled to double Coney Island

The Great Houdinis was edited by John Woodcock and scored by Peter Matz, who would also serve as musical director for Doug Henning’s second World of Magic TV special.

ABC promoted The Great Houdinis with an impressive four page photo spread in the popular gossip magazine, Preview (October 1976), as well an article in TV Guide that claimed to reveal the secret of the Water Torture Cell (it doesn't). The image of Glaser reenacting Houdini's famous semi-nude chained pose was used extensively in advertising. A novelization, written by Shavelson, was released in both the U.S. and UK. In the UK the book was serialized in Reveille, and also released in hardcover with photos of the real Harry and Bess Houdini.

The original TV Guide ad for the October 8, 1976 airing.

The Great Houdinis aired on October 8, 1976 as part of ABC’s Friday Night Movie. In some markets it aired from 8-10, others from 9-11 (including Los Angeles). Competition that night was from the 1975 John Wayne movie, Brannigan, on CBS and The Rockford Files with James Garner on NBC. In some markets the final line, "I believe the son-of-a-bitch loved her," was edited out. It would repeat once on April 6, 1977 (April 6 was the day Houdini celebrated his birthday, which may or may not have been coincidental). For this '77 broadcast the title was changed to the singular, The Great Houdini, which is what the movie is better known by today.

Reviews were generally good, although, as had been the case 23 years earlier with Paramount's HOUDINI, the magic community took the film to task for its inaccuracies. David Lustig, who performed as La Velma and knew Houdini well, said watching the film made him "feel nauseated." Another reviewer called the film "an object lesson in the abuse of dramatic license."

However, over time, what in 1976 seemed to be a steamy confection of dramatic license (Houdini's affairs, Bessie's symptoms of alcoholism) has turned out to be fact. No evidence has ever surfaced that hostility existed between Bess and Houdini's mother, however. This notion of a fractious household was first put forth by author Maurice Zolotow, who also spoke openly about Houdini's supposed affair with Daisy White. I've often wondered whether Zolotow had any direct influence over Shavelson's creation of the story. Regardless, it all made for great TV drama.

A very big thanks to The Magic Castle's William Larsen, Sr. Memorial Library and librarian Bill Goodwin for helping me uncover the story of the making of my favorite Houdini biopic. Also thanks to Patrick Culliton, MSW, Dean Carnegie (Magic Detective), and Steve Santini.

30 comments:

  1. Ok, Standing Ovation for that. It was worth the wait!!! Excellent, simply excellent!

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  2. Thanks, Dean. I actually think this is just a start. I tried to contact people who worked on the movie, but had no luck aside from Patrick (who only worked 3 days). I'd like to flesh this out with personal stories of the production. I also really want to find out whether they went to Belmont on that last day.

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  3. Wonderful research, John. I remember seeing this when it first aired. I thought it was terrible. In light of more recent factual discoveries, I watched it again just a few months ago and still found it, on the whole, terrible.

    Where it's good, though, it's better than the others.

    Here's what has always irked me about the Houdini films: the actual tale of his life is already so dramatic, interesting, and replete with conflict that it seems absurd to substitute invented variations and fantasy.

    That said, it's terrific that you've pulled all this together. And a kudos to Billy for lending a hand!

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  4. Thanks, David. I do wish someone would make a factual Houdini movie (or mini series) some day. I've written my own, of course. But Hollywood is not a fan anymore of the classic biopic. It's a shame.

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  5. Yep I agree with Dean - really good and worth the wait.

    I like the bit about TV Guide "revealing" the secret of the water torture cell.

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  6. The TV Guide piece says Houdini removed two bolts (presumably with his toes) and parted the stocks. The article is called "Sleight of Feet." :)

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  7. See, why wait for an article from Magicol when you can go to the source? TV Guide!

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  8. I remember that piece from the TV Guide. In fact, I might have it around here somewhere. I also agree with David in that Houdini's life story is already so filled with great events, why make things up?

    But the biopic thing, doesn't that kind of come and go in Hollywood. The AVIATOR was a biopic, RAY was a biopic, WALK THE LINE about Johnny Cash, and an older one but one of my favorites CHAPLIN was a biopic. Hollywood doesn't roll out a lot of them, but there is hope. Imagine a Houdini movie winning the OSCAR for Best Picture! That's more like it!!!

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  9. John, what an amazing piece of research. I agree with you that this is the best biopic yet, but "yet" is the operative word. We can all wait, and who knows, someday it might be. All we need is someone in Hollywood who could realise the potential. Houdini's name is known worldwide, and if this thing was to happen, the business opportunities for memorabilia would be huge. Plus of course it would be an awakening for the many escape artistes out there who would suddenly find their art more acceptable to the public.

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  10. Is the novelization identical with the movie?

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  11. The fellow who played Arthur Ford was my personal favorite!! The way things are today, the best way to get an accurate Houdini movie would be to first have someone produce a Graphic Novel and have it adapted for the screen. But how true to the original would the movie be?

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  13. Sorry - I posted too quickly and realised I hadn't put in everything.

    Eric, no the film differs from the novel in a few parts. I also think the role as played by Glaser (I haven't seen the actual script to compare) portrays a slightly more sympathetic Houdini character than that written in the novel. Some of the rough edges in the character in my opinion were smoothed out.

    It is interesting too pondering how much influence Zolotow might have had over the script or Shavelson's ideas. He does seem to have had a bit of a hang up about the idea of a Jewish boy marrying a Catholic girl but he may just have been a product of his time. I don't know.

    The other thing that didn't make sense to me in the film was using the pregnancy as a plot device. It wasn't until I read the novel that I realised where it fit in. Up until that point in the film, she wants him to chuck it in because he's getting nowhere and they're broke. After she tells him she's pregnant and then loses the baby in basically the next scene, you think well what was all that about? We all know they didn't have children but there just seems no real reason to have put it in.

    The novel tells things more from her perspective. She comes to the realisation that trying to domesticate Houdini particularly after being told she can't have any sort of normal family life is a losing proposition. This is part of her thought processes in the scene after Harry gives her the ring and tells her he's sold the act to pay for it.

    I had a 30 year gap between first seeing this film as a 12 year old and then seeing it again last year. I think it is actually pretty good considering its limitations but as everyone else has said, they have yet to make the ultimate Houdini biopic.

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  14. Really interesting stuff. This was right around the time I began to learn about Houdini too. This and the Tony Curtis movie really gave me the basis for who Harry was and got me to begin to work on escapology. Thank you for giving us a sneak peek at a book. It sounds like it has the makings of a great book.
    Thanks
    Alex

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  15. "I do wish someone would make a factual Houdini movie (or mini series) some day. I've written my own, of course"

    Any chance an excerpt or two will ever get posted here? I do think that one of the biggest hurdles any serious Houdini biopic will face is making the audience understand the scope of his fame.

    In an age where technology has made it possible to become famous literally overnight for no good reason, it might be difficult to make people understand just how hard it was to become internationally famous in Houdini's time.
    A time when newspapers and periodicals had to think what you were doing was actually worth writing about and celebrities who were truly world famous were a rarity.

    Yes, Houdini was a masterful and tireless self-promoter, but what that meant in terms of actual work would, (I believe) astound many modern day movie goers.

    This is a man so famous after all, that his name is synonymous with escaping from any difficult or dangerous situation and even in this age of instant celebrities that's not an easy thing to do.

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  16. Thanks, melbo.

    An interesting question about accurate biopics is characterization. The characters are nearly everything in a movie. A biopic that just narrates the biggest events of a person's life can be a lifeless series of "greatest hits."

    I remember seeing a fictional movie about the last months of van Gogh's life. It showed him doing very mundane things. It was deliberately slowly paced. Even after he shot himself, it took forever for him to die. The first time I saw it, I didn't like it.

    Then I felt compelled to see it again and I realized the movie created the feeling of real life through these homely scenes. It was like seeing him in front of you. Van Gogh was much more real in the movie than in the Kirk Douglas film, which shows the big events of his life.

    Back to Houdini. An "accurate" movie would need to capture the characters well, not just narrate their lives. That would require some decisions by the filmmaker: Who were these people? What moments of their lives would bring out their complex natures? There would have to be invention just by the nature of writing scenes.

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  17. John,

    Just wanted to concur... your research is excellent as always!

    Dave

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  18. Thank you, Dave. :)

    BTW, Pat Culliton has posted on his site some of Dave Steven's behind the scenes photos. Wonderful stuff!

    http://www.houdinisghost.com/shavelson.html
    http://www.houdinisghost.com/blackstone.html
    http://www.houdinisghost.com/davestevens.html

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  19. I think you will find Eric Cord's name on the call sheets for the Water Torture Cell sequence and, I would think, for the dive off the Malibu Pier. He was the stunt double.

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  20. Oh, thanks Patrick. There was no mention of a double on the WTC day of the schedule, and all it said for Malibu was "double", no name. Good to know.

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  21. Is there any talk of this movie being released on DVD?

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  22. Unfortunately, not that I've heard.

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  23. My brain is mush. I wrote that the Milk Can escape was cut from the '77 repeat. No, it isn't. It's right there! It's in all the surviving versions. Thanks to Eric for straightening me out. I've amended the article -- made my blunder disappear. :)

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  24. John,
    That's not the Milk Can from the Magic Castle Houdini Seance room--that can is the Earl Lockman milk can which employs a gaffe invented by Leo Irby, who performed with it on TV.
    The Can in the movie was owned by Abb Dickson and was gaffed in the way the Owens Magic milk can was.
    the escape was never made during the making of the film, we locked him in and unlocked him out, but, Paul tried it without water in the can.

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    1. Thanks Pat, but I don't think I ever said the Glaser/Great Houdinis can is the can in the Castle. I said the Castle Can was from the cut scenes in the Tony Curtis movie.

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  25. These photos of scenes cut from the Tony Curtis movie show the Lockman Milk Can. The secret of this Milk Can is beyond brilliant and not to be discussed in public. You can examine for two years and never catch on to it.
    http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_o_5Z3Zpfj0M/TQpmTCFCZ6I/AAAAAAAAAtc/Y_OItla8pGU/s1600/houdini+cuts.jpg

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  26. As a Houdini worshipping kid, I was mighty disappointed by this film, because it Showed little magic and it seemed to focus on the negative--the constant bickering between Bess and Houdini's mother, Houdini's stage embarrassments, the supposed affair, Houdini's shallowness, etc. The biggest slap in the face was showing Arthur ford succeeding in contacting Houdini beyond the grave, something that I thought dishonored Houdini's life's work in exposing mediums. Being released on the 50th anniversary of Houdini's death added further insult to injury. With the passage of time, however, and learning that Houdini was far from a saint, I've mellowed out on this LOL! incidentally, it's amazing, having recently watched the whole film again on YouTube, just how well I remembered it 37 years later!!!

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    1. I think the only thing that troubled me (and still does) is how it shows a battle royale between Mama and Bessie. There's NO evidence for this whatsoever. By all accounts Bess and Mama got along fine. So that's a fiction that hurts both women. But, as I said, it makes for great drama.

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  27. Well, the bickering between Bess and Mama was 80% - 90% of the movie! LOL!

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  28. Hi Patrick-Is The Secret Of The Lockman Milkcan Discussed In Your Book Houdini Ghe Key?

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